Rebuking Biden, Iran’s Chief Diplomat Demands More Sanctions Relief

Accusing President Biden of continuing “the thick file of the Trump sanctions against Iran,’’ the new, hard-line Iranian foreign minister said on Friday that in return for agreeing to limits on its nuclear program, his country would demand far more sanctions relief than it received under the 2015 nuclear deal.

In two lengthy interviews with journalists during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, his first as Iran’s top diplomat, Hossain Amirabdollahian said that Iran would return “very soon” to negotiations in Vienna. But Tehran, he said, had received “contradictory messages” from Washington about restoring the agreement jettisoned by Donald J. Trump more than three years ago.

The foreign minister represents a new government that is more closely tied to the military and openly antagonistic to the West than its predecessor, and his repeated insistence on gaining more benefits in return for returning to the deal points to a looming impasse with the United States.

American officials have said that if Iran wants to see other sanctions lifted, it must be prepared for what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has described as a “longer and stronger” accord than the original, which runs through 2030 — one that would significantly extend the time period when Iran would not be permitted to hold more than a token amount of nuclear fuel.

“We will not have a so-called ‘longer and stronger’ deal,’’ Mr. Amirabdollahian told The New York Times in an interview on Thursday night at his hotel opposite the United Nations headquarters. The 2015 accord “has a lot of harsh critics in Iran,” he said, “but we accepted it.’’

American officials said they were not surprised by Mr. Amirabdollahian’s position. While they did not meet the new foreign minister — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has banned direct contact — they said he had made similar statements to European leaders over the past five days.

U.S. officials have been expecting that the hard-liners in Iran’s new government would try to raise the price for returning to the accord that Mr. Trump pulled out of in 2018. To gain leverage, over the past two years Iran has resumed its production of uranium and now has a stockpile of fuel far in excess of the limits of the 2015 accord. Earlier this week, Britain’s foreign office declared that “Iran has never been this close to having the ability to develop nuclear weapons.”

Experts estimate that Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium in a month or two, but that it would take 18 months or more to fashion it into a working weapon — plenty of time for the United States, Israel and others to respond. But with each passing month, Iran has expanded its stockpile, and its knowledge, about how to enrich uranium, at scale, to a level that would make it a so-called threshold nuclear power — on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon, but not quite over that line.

Mr. Amirabdollahian’s rejection of any tougher or extended nuclear agreement appeared to signal that Iran intends to preserve the time frame of the 2015 agreement, with restrictions on the amount of nuclear fuel it can produce largely expiring in 2030. There is increasing concern in the West that a duration that seemed long enough in 2015 looks disturbingly short in 2021.

The new minister portrayed his view of dealing with the United States as dramatically different from that of his urbane, American-educated predecessor, Mohammad Javad Zarif, saying the previous government had spent far too much energy negotiating lengthy, detailed agreements with the United States.

“The standard for us,’’ said Mr. Amirabdollahian, “will be one to watch the action of U.S. officials and judge based on actions taken by President Biden,’’ rather than on Mr. Biden’s “paradoxical statements.”

He suggested that the Iran deal went off the rails long before Mr. Trump took office. He argued that President Barack Obama had worked, even after the accord was reached, to keep Iran from reaping the benefits of sanctions relief.

“It’s important to note that the violations began under Obama, and then President Trump,’’ he said, contending that banks and energy companies pulled back from signing deals even when the agreement was in place.

He is partly right: Many companies feared the rules would change again after the 2016 presidential election. That fear proved warranted, as Mr. Trump rescinded the deal and imposed new sanctions.

The same could happen again, Mr. Amirabdollahian said, so Iran is learning how to live in a world of sanctions. “We will not tie the fate of our nation to the J.C.P.O.A.,’’ he said, using the formal name for the accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“We will return to the negotiations and will do so very quickly,’’ he told The Times. “But if our counterparts don’t change their behavior we may not reach the required result.”

At a daily news briefing, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, sounded skeptical about Iranian talk of resumed negotiations.

“You’ll need to ask them on the meaning of ‘soon’ and ‘very soon,’” Mr. Price said. “That is a message we’ve heard all week, but we have up until this point not received clarity on what precisely that means.”

Inside the White House and the State Department, there is now an expectation that the talks could spill into next year, and could collapse entirely. Speaking at a news conference on Thursday as he wrapped up a week of diplomacy at the annual United Nations gathering, Mr. Blinken warned Iran, as he has repeatedly in recent weeks, that time was running out for a relatively simple return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Iran has resumed its production of uranium and now has a stockpile of fuel far in excess of the limits of the 2015 accord.Credit…Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Uranium enrichment uses centrifuges to separate the common form of the element from the much rarer and more radioactive isotope that can create a nuclear explosion. It becomes usable in a weapon when about 90 percent or more is the more potent form. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran was limited to enrichment to less than 4 percent, enough to fuel a nuclear power plant.

Mr. Blinken said that “with every passing day, as Iran continues to take actions that are not in compliance with the agreement — particularly building larger stockpiles of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, even to 60 percent, and spinning faster centrifuges” its nuclear program makes progress toward a point beyond which it cannot easily be reversed.

Mr. Blinken and other Biden administration officials have repeatedly declined to say how much time remains, or what specific metrics they might use to assess that the 2015 framework cannot be salvaged.

He and the State Department’s envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, consulted with allies on the matter in New York this week, but departed with no specific date for a return to talks in Vienna. The difficulty of their task was underscored by a fiery address to the United Nations on Tuesday by Iran’s new President, Ebrahim Raisi, who condemned the United States as an international bully.

In two conversations — one on Thursday night with New York Times journalists and another on Friday morning with a wider group of American reporters — Mr. Amirabdollahian declined several opportunities to explain why Iran was now, for the first time, producing nuclear fuel that is close to bomb-grade. His aides said that the production of the fuel at 60 percent purity was largely a political statement, a sign that Iran planned to exercise all of its rights as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — which permits it to produce the fuel, but bars it from taking the last steps to turn it into a weapon.

But they noted that highly enriched uranium could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for that purpose. And they cited Mr. Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls for the U.S. and Britain to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines, which use highly enriched uranium. Australia is not considered a proliferation threat, but to the Iranians this is largely proof of a double standard.

Mr. Amirabdollahian did offer one rare example of harmony with American diplomacy, calling on Afghanistan’s new Taliban government to protect the rights of religious and ethnic groups. Iran’s Shia-led government has sought to protect Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara minority, which suffered massacres at the hands of the Taliban when the Sunni militant group last governed Afghanistan.

“We firmly believe the only solution is the formation of an inclusive government, in order to push forward,” Mr. Amirabdollahian said of Afghanistan. “We have been in contact with all sides.”

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